If you were looking for one of the British mainline railway network’s most significant Modernist stations, then a leafy, quiescent, conservative south-west London suburb might not be where you would naturally start your search. Yet it is in Surbiton that one of the most radically modern stations of its day can be found. Surbiton station’s familiarity to its users means that few stop to think about just how startling it is, and today it is not well-known, but it’s one of the few mainline stations which can bear comparison with the great Pick and Holden London Underground stations of the 1930s.
It’s the work of the Southern Railway’s architect James Robb Scott (1882-1965). In the 1930s he produced a series of Modernist stations, signal boxes and electrical control centres across the Southern, some of which we’ve looked at before (here and here). They brought the Southern Railway firmly into the Modernist age (much as Pick and Holden did for the Underground), doing away with the Gothic, Classical and Mock Tudor styles which could be found in railway buildings until then (all of which borrowed from architecture massively pre-dating the railway system).
The station’s design is all the more startling given the character of Surbiton itself. Surbiton was (and still is, really) frightfully ordinary, and rather conservative. It’s a place populated by well-heeled commuters in which continuity and tradition are valued over change and innovation. It’s the premise behind the central joke of an extremely popular 1970s BBC television situation comedy, The Good Life. Tom Good and his wife quit the rat race to become self-sufficient in their own house and garden, to the utter horror of their next-door neighbours, the latter of whom are appalled at the challenge to the status quo and, worse, the Goods’ sheer conspicousness.
Nevertheless, in the 1930s, Surbiton station needed rebuilding, and Scott took the opportunity to produce a design which is as notable today as it was on its opening in 1937. Devoid of any decoration, constructed of reinforced concrete and finished in bright white, it must have shocked contemporary passengers. They were used to brickwork and fancy finials at their railway stations, and bricks which would have been darkened to grey-black by years of smoke from steam locomotives. But Surbiton was of the future, a future in which trains would be electrically powered and produce no local air pollution, making a white building a (more or less) practical proposition. The Southern Railway had a largely electrified suburban railway network, and electrification has been extending to longer distance services ever since, though trains passing through Surbiton from Waterloo to Salisbury and Exeter are still diesel-powered because the electrified network runs out just past Basingstoke. Surbiton station’s footbridge retains the smoke deflectors which helped prevent smoke marks from staining the render, a physical reminder of the difficulties in building the future when the technology of the past is refusing to go quietly.
It’s a station which is really still in a league of its own on the British mainline railway. The inside of the Modernist booking hall at Leeds is certainly a match for Surbiton’s (and it’s a lot bigger), but that station’s external walls are finished in very conciliatory brickwork. Surbiton’s sheer-sided white bulk makes no concession at all to any sense English politeness or introversion. It’s now a much-loved local landmark, and to the pride of locals (see here), architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was early in recognising that in an architecturally conservative England, Surbiton station was notable for “acknowledging the existence of a modern style”, this actually being something of an understatement given that it pretty well exemplified it.
On the north side of the station, a large ticket hall is the main feature, flanked at either side by low buildings which curve back to meet long wings, all of which are tied into a whole by a concrete canopy which runs the length of the building. It’s one of those buildings that is better seen in person than represented in pictures. You can’t really get a clean shot of its full width, because it is hemmed in by surrounding buildings and the view is also blocked by street lights, bins and telephone boxes (the ideal viewpoint from which to take a photo would be at a point which is currently occupied by small shop).
To the left of the main building is a footbridge and a tall clock tower with a narrow cornice forming a lid on top, just underneath which are a set of horizontal strings, which makes a dramatic geometric statement (well seen in the photo at the beginning of this week’s entry). It’s every bit the equivalent of clock towers at stations like Los Angeles’ Union Station (built at exactly the same time) or Gare de Brest in France. Scott must have been inspired by American union stations to some extent, though railway architects in both countries were inspired by the wider Modernism and Streamline Moderne movements in general, so it wouldn’t have been a case of Scott copying the style directly.
The stateside influence is most notable inside the main ticket hall, which has more than a touch of the atmosphere you find at an inter-war American union station:
The lower sections of the walls are tiled in marble, and immediately above this are decorative bronze sconces for lighting. The front and back walls are dominated by four tall glass windows with narrow concrete mullions. The sconces provide uplighting, and this shows off the construction of the ceiling brilliantly, with the shadows cast by the exposed soffits giving stark and monochrome drama overhead. The main entrance doors to the ticket hall, surviving originals which somehow never got replaced with modern sliding doors versions (thank goodness), are made of wood with bronze fittings and are quite lovely; identical in design to those at Woking station.
Stairs up to the platforms are reached through the middle of the north wall of the ticket office, via a slightly projecting archway also finished in marble, with rounded edges. There is a mirror of that entrance on the opposite side of the ticket hall, but it is blind (there’s a supermarket in the section of the station beyond, which is convenient for commuters and gives a bit of life to the station at night).
In the footbridge, daylight is admitted through a series of glass block skylights, which gives a bright and airy feeling. At night, the contrast between the dark glass and bright white frames is equally striking:
The concrete arches which provide the structure of the footbridge repeat along its length, and the walls are finished with small square cream tiles, which I think are original (they are similar to those which can be found at some London Underground stations, and would probably have been described as biscuit-coloured originally). Lift shafts at the back of the footbridge also have the narrow cornice, but also feature small windows at the top corners. Despite its simple external appearance, the footbridge is an incredibly complicated design, being double deck (providing for passengers to be kept on a separate level from goods) while the passenger level is segregated laterally too, with one side for passage within the station, and the other side acting as a footbridge for pedestrian traffic moving from one side of the railway line to the other.
Throughout the station, Scott engineered locations for the display of posters, keen to ensure a rational and uncluttered pattern to the display of adverts and passenger information. He bordered them with green and black ceramic tiles, the outer green ones with a curved edge. This was a favourite colour combination of Scott’s, and can also be found in the pattern of the edging to the lino floor at the Woking Electrical Control Room.
It’s the platforms, however, which contain the biggest surprise and disappointment of the station’s design:
The platform buildings contain waiting rooms/cafes (as seen in the movie Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), offices and toilets, and are round-ended streamline buildings of considerable style. On a London Underground station of the 1930s, they would be complemented overhead by a curved concrete canopy cantilevered out from the building itself. Yet at Surbiton, the platform buildings sit underneath utterly conventional railway station canopies, all fussy girders and wooden valances, with supporting legs needlessly cluttering up the platforms and presenting obstacles to passengers on the platforms (not to mention drainpipes which sometime leak spectacularly in heavy rain). This many years on, it’s hard to work out what happened to cause this uncomfortable collision between traditional railway station design and Modernist architecture. Did the budget not stretch to the final component that would have made the station a complete Modernist work? Did the Board of the Southern Railway take fright at the design and insist on the retention of traditional railway station canopies?
Over on the south side of the station, there is more space around the entrance, which makes it possible to take a step back and appreciate Scott’s massing of the clock tower on the far side with the footbridge and its lift shafts, and the southern ticket hall:
The southern ticket hall is essentially a smaller version of that on the north side, slightly lower and with the tall windows in threes, rather than fours, flanked by two low, square buildings again all connected with a concrete canopy. There’s also an absolutely spiffing moulded concrete wall which fences off the railway tracks, for those who really appreciate it when an architect looks after even the more mundane elements of a railway station’s design.
A comprehensive refurbishment program for the station currently underway illustrates some of the problems of looking after old buildings; the last one taking place only around 15 years ago. Despite that, until quite recently the roof of the footbridge leaked shockingly whenever it rained (which is a lot, in England) and the glass skylights in the footbridge had become cracked and discoloured, along with much of the ceiling. Thanks to a massive program being undertaken by operator South West Trains and owner Network Rail, that’s mostly been rectified now, although work is still continuing to finish the job. Buddleia was growing from the station walls in some places; that has been removed. Insensitive later light fittings have been replaced, and lighting throughout the station has been upgraded to brilliant white, which really complements the white finishes of the station interiors, throwing the form of the building’s interior into stark relief, as can be seen in some of the photos in this week’s entry. The incongruous platform canopies are getting new glazing, startlingly clear after years of dirty frosted glass letting limited amounts of light through.
Yet despite the beauty of the northern ticket hall being accessible to all, its smaller sibling on the south side is currently locked out of use, and has been so for many years. Today it is nothing more than a store room. One feels it ought to be the venue some kind of coffee shop or cafe, but then again Surbiton is one of those stations that people tend to hurry through on their way to or from work, rather than dawdling as one might at a large London termini.
The immediate surroundings of the station leave a lot to be desired. The station might be a beautiful piece of architecture, but it’s not alway easy to appreciate it. The north side entrance has a small forecourt, used for short-stay parking and a taxi rank, in a chaotic arrangement which means that only those who are bored of life would wish to step out into it. A hideous taxi rank sign, which looks like a giant grey traffic cone, is an unwelcome obstacle on the footway just outside the main entrance doors (you can just make it out on the photo here; it’s an unusually not very good piece of Transport for London design). Outside the southern station entrance, another forecourt with a short stay car park and pick up/drop off facility detracts from the building. In an ideal world, one would have well-designed public spaces outside each entrance, complementing the station. But there’s not much money in that.
Surbiton station’s future is secure. It was given Grade II listing in October 1983, and the ongoing works to the station show a commendable sense of responsibility to the necessary maintenance of a significant structure. If someone could just calm down and tidy up the forecourts, and reopen the south side ticket hall, I’ll meet you there for a very Modernist cup of coffee.
references and further reading
National Heritage http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1185071
how to find Surbiton station
follow this link